Historical movies

Historical films are just Bollywood’s surgical strike against truth and facts

Filming the biography of a person, dead or alive, or for that matter a historical event – factual or apocryphal – is like walking on a double-edged sword, especially in a country where feelings are hurt even by theater. absurd. Swords come out of their sheaths not just on character portrayal, but also on something as innocuous as a movie title. More often than not, filmmakers have to pay the price for their “audacity to distort the facts” under commercial pretexts.

However, the intrepid Bollywood brigade does not seem to hesitate to make biopics, with the privilege of cinematic freedom to pass fact for fiction and vice versa, without asking questions. In fact, the lords of Lokhandwala tend to use this very freedom to temper any scenario with whatever sugar or spice they choose to whet the curiosity of gullible audiences. Little surprise then, there’s rarely an honest film adaptation of a person’s life and times or milestone event recorded on the story’s footnotes. Obviously, facts haven’t been sacrosanct in a Bollywood biopic where the main protagonist is often portrayed as infallible with his dark side painted with impunity. Unlike the heroes of Shakespearian tragedies, these characters possess no hamartia that could cause their downfall.

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This may be acceptable for a commonplace masala movie, but in a biopic that’s supposed to be based on true events, that seems almost unforgivable. But then, Bollywood has had its own rules and regulations over the years. It’s probably the only industry in the 70mm universe where posters claim a movie is “inspired by true events”, but also have a disclaimer next to the fact that all characters and events that depicted therein are fictitious and any resemblance to a living or dead person is purely coincidental! Obviously, he never hesitates to draw the public to the box office by showing the biographical card, but wastes no time in stating that everything shown on the screen is imaginary, if undue controversy arises from his misadventure.

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It’s strange that almost every biopic turns out to be controversial for one reason or another, no matter what tricks and subterfuges the cunning film dealers adopt, whether it’s a historical love story like Bajirao-Mastani (2015) or a contemporary odyssey of Gunjan Saxena (2020), the first female Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter pilot. Sometimes it also seems obvious that the filmmakers themselves are deliberately fueling controversies as an effective ploy to attract audiences. Sometimes such controversies help a weak film at the box office but don’t necessarily provide an elixir to a poorly made biopic. This is what happened to Akshay Kumar’s highly anticipated recently released film, Prithviraj (the title was changed at the last minute to Samrat Prithviraj). Originally presented as a biopic of Prithviraj Chouhan, the valiant 12th-century Hindu emperor, it has been declared tax-exempt by many BJP-ruled states. Still, the largesse couldn’t save it from being an all-time disaster. Besides its lackluster script, direction, and publicity strategy, the film provoked history buffs enough to dismiss its claims of being a well-researched biopic. In the past too, such allegations have been made against high-profile films like Padmaavat (2018), Sanju (2018) and Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022). Yet it was Vivek Agnihotri’s blockbuster The Kashmir Files (2022), based on the 1990 exodus of Kashmir Pandits from the valley, which caused the greatest storm of recent times amid the raging debate between fact and fiction.

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There is no denying that several films and web series have turned a blind eye to the facts despite being promoted as being inspired by real events. For example, a web series, maharani, was widely released as Rabri Devi’s biopic about the former Chief Minister of Bihar played by Huma Qureshi. Still, the show’s sequence of events was twisted enough to make it seem fictional. In such series or films, the boundaries between real and real become so blurred that one begins to wonder whether it is art imitating life or the other way around. It was a classic example of Bollywood’s ingenuity to blatantly steal episodes from real life, alter them in the name of cinematic license and present them with a shameless warning that this is purely a work of fiction.

There is no denying that several films and web series have turned a blind eye to facts despite being promoted as inspired by true events.

Same case with many Bollywood war movies. With the exception of Chetan Anand Haqeeqat (1964), he never gave up his obsession with masala and melodrama to make films like JP Dutta’s Border (1997) on the Battle of Longewala during the 1971 war; Aditya Dhar Uri: the surgical strike (2018), on India’s 2016 surgical attack on terrorist camps in Pakistan; Shershaah (2021), a biopic of Kargil’s war hero Vikram Batra; Where Bhuj: the pride of India (2021) about the heroism of an IAF pilot, Squadron Leader Vijay Karnik, during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971.

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The main problem with Bollywood war movies is that its writers take far too many liberties in adapting real events to the screen, with an eye on commercial prospects. This is why the IAF objected to a few scenes of Jahnvi Kapoor’s star Gunjan Saxena. Such cases have yet to deter Bollywood. Currently, several war biopics are in the works, including one featuring Vicky Kaushal about Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, the Bangladeshi war hero.

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The moot point, however, remains whether historical facts can be ruthlessly altered in the name of cinematic freedom for a movie shouted from the rooftops for being a biopic? The jury is still out but some filmmakers see no harm in it. According to them, textbooks taught in a school or university cannot literally be adapted into a feature film and changes have to be made to the script due to commercial or artistic constraints. For example, does Yash Raj Films Samrat Prithviraj attracted more viewers if it depicted the murder of the “last Hindu emperor” at the hands of a foreign invader such as Muhammad Ghori, unlike the diametrically opposite way shown in the film?

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They are right. The grammar of feature films is very different from that of documentaries. Of course, any filmmaker cannot be dispossessed of his fundamental cinematographic freedom. But do they have the right to present lies under the guise of truth? Just as every pack of cigarettes carries a legal disclaimer, should the censorship board secure a disclaimer that the scenes shown onscreen in a film purporting to be a biopic are anything but a true mirror of the story ?

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(This appeared in the print edition as “Packaging of Fiction as Facts”)

(Writer is winner of the National Award for Best Film Critic)